Women and Nationalism

Women never figure as active subjects in the discourse of Nationalism in India. Women, though not a monolithic group, always are on the periphery of the popular discourse on nationalism though they are predominantly accorded symbolic position in the narratives on nationalism. In many symbolical ways women are central to the discourse of nationalism. This also reflects their location in other spheres of public and private life where they have limited access to power and decision making. This seemingly contradictory status that women have can be better understood when one critically understands the meaning of nationalism and takes a historical stock of the treatment of women in India.

Max Weber defined nation as a 'community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state'. Benedict Anderson defined nation as an imagined political community—imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is limited because all the members of the nation will never know each other or interact with each other but will still hold dear a single collective ideal. It is an imagined community because it masks inequalities and exploitation in the community under the idea of horizontal comradeship in which the members of the community are willing to shed blood for the same. Gellner goes to an extent of saying 'nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.' Thus nation understood from these definitions is a collective or community holding certain aspirations for power.

Nationalism as an ideology is based on exclusion and masculinity. The construct of nationalism fosters national identity and cultural boundaries. Not all communities are represented equally in this national identity. Identities are often constructed through social contests which more often than not are violent in nature. Groups with power and privileges prevail over the marginalised and largely define national identity (synonymous with their own). Nationalism thus becomes oppressive and entails the process of 'othering' and creating a hierarchy.

Nationalism is gendered. Women have been historically excluded and discriminated against, having unequal access to decision making and resources in any nation. Women have been assigned inferior positions where their contributions are invisibilised. Their roles have been gendered as defined by patriarchy—masculine and feminine. While society deems it masculine and 'manlike' for men to fight wars or kill, women are vested with the honour of the family, community and nation that needs to be protected and kept undefiled. Their primary role that is symbolically depicted is that of motherhood.

The role of women in the freedom struggle of India and in nationalism in the face of colonial rule is a paradox of sorts. There is hardly any linear connection between women's rights and freedom struggle. While women were exhorted to come out of their homes by national leaders like Gandhi to participate in the freedom struggle and make it truly a mass movement, their roles and extent of participation was also predetermined by cultural and patriarchal boundaries that sanctioned certain 'feminine' conduct creating a smoke screen of agency and autonomy.

Colonial power was opposed by Indians in different ways. While some groups were revolutionary, others believed in the constitutional means of negotiations with the British. Women contributed to all these struggles. Women like Kalpana Dutta were involved in bomb making and attacking the British. Lakshmi Swaminathan was an Officer of the Indian National Army. Sarojini Naidu was another leading woman in the national struggle who led delegation for adult franchise and freedom. There were women like Savitribai Phule who openly contested colonial patriarchy. Due to Gandhi's emphasis on women's participation, large number of women participated in Swadeshi movement, or the boycott of foreign goods, non-payment of taxes, picketing of liquor shops, and so on. However this is not adequate to understand the complex location of women in Indian freedom struggle. Women were always placed at the centre of politics in India, colonisers justified their rule and policies citing the 'backwardness' of Indian society reflected in the plight of women and restrictions imposed on women in those times. Indian leaders responded in different ways to this according to their own strategies.

Vol. 49, No.3, Jul 24 - 30, 2016